By Jonathan Bales
In the first part of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the nickel linebacker position. Today, I will take a look at defensive end.
Coach Wade Phillips loves to rotate his defensive linemen. The chart to the left displays the percentage of snaps each of the defensive ends played in 2009 (it adds up to 200 percent since there were always two ends on the field).
Notice that Igor Olshansky led the group at 62.8 percent of snaps, but that wasn’t even twice as much as the player with the least snaps (Jason Hatcher at 38.2 percent). Marcus Spears, the starter opposite Olshanksy, played just slightly more (51.6 percent of all snaps) than his backup Stephen Bowen (47.4 percent).
With Spears’ and Bowen’s snaps so evenly distributed, you could effectively call them starters 1A and 1B. Spears is the run defense guy (53.2 percent of his snaps came against the run), while Bowen is the Cowboys’ pass-rush specialist at end (79.6 percent of his snaps came against the pass).
In case you are wondering, 50.5 percent of Olshansky’s snaps came against the run, while just 32.2 percent of Hatcher’s came in the same situation.
A lot of questions have arisen of late regarding this snap distribution. Is it time to provide Bowen and Hatcher (Hatcher in particular) with more snaps? Spears, Bowen, and Hatcher are all restricted free agents. There is practically zero chance of the Cowboys retaining all three players, particularly with seventh-rounder Sean Lissemore waiting in the wings.
Spears is by far the most likely candidate to leave Dallas, and there still exists an outside chance he is traded before the start of the season. If not, however, you can still expect a tremendous battle for playing time at defensive end during training camp. Spears’ probable departure only adds to the likelihood of Bowen and Hatcher receiving more snaps.
In my view, it is time to transition Bowen and Hatcher into the lineup a bit more. In our 2009 Defensive End Grades, Spears, Bowen, and Hatcher all received nearly identical grades (all around 80 percent). If the Cowboys coaches also view the players as interchangeable (which appears to be the case), then it is time to slowly scale back Spears’ snaps. Let the players who will be here in 2011 play now.
- Marcus Spears
Spears has never gotten the credit he deserves because fans had unrealistic expectations for him. As a run-stuffing 3-4 end, he was never going to put up big numbers. He is an intelligent, hard-working player who still has a role in Dallas. His lack of pure pass-rushing ability, though, will limit his 2010 snap count.
- Stephen Bowen
Bowen is the player most likely to pilfer some of Spears’ snaps. His sack and quarterback hit percentages led all defensive ends, so he will surely once again be the Cowboys’ nickel end. If he can show he is capable of holding up against the run, he could steal Spears’ starting gig.
- Jason Hatcher
Hatcher is a personal favorite of mine and a player I labeled as one likely to bust out in 2010. Despite playing significantly less than the other defensive ends, Hatcher racked up the most quarterback pressures. Pressures, in my opinion, represent a players’ future sack total better than any other statistic. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Hatcher (assuming he receives enough snaps) rack up six to eight sacks this season.
Pros/Cons of Starting. . .
- Marcus Spears
Spears is still fairly stout against the run, so he is by no means a liability for Dallas during early downs. The problem is that everybody and their brother knows Spears won’t be in town in 2010. If Bowen and/or Hatcher’s play is comparable, shouldn’t they get more reps?
- Stephen Bowen
Bowen has a legitimate shot at starting, but he recorded only 13 tackles all of last season and played less than 100 snaps against the run. Is he ready to hold up against the offense’s “big boys” during early down work? How will that affect his pass rushing?
- Jason Hatcher
Hatcher appears primed to break out as a pass rusher, but I have some doubts about his ability to consistently hold up against the run. His tackle rate of 1.81 percent last year was the worst on the team.
Right now, I’d give Spears the slight advantage as the projected starter. As is the case with so many positions in football today, however, the label ‘starter’ really doesn’t mean much. More crucial is snap distribution, and I think you will see that change in 2010.
Listed to the right is my 2010 defensive end snaps projection. The big “loser” is Spears, who would see his snap count decrease by about 10 percent.
I think you’ll see Spears begin the season as the starter, again playing on only running downs. Bowen may get substituted in a bit more to start, but I could see the initial 2010 rotation as similar to that of last season.
As the season progresses, you’ll likely see the playing time of both Bowen and Hatcher increase. This is dependent on play, but the Cowboys are likely eager for both players to see more action, particularly on some running downs during which Spears would normally be on the field.
All of this could change with a spectacular camp from either Bowen or Hatcher, of course, making this an awesome battle to monitor this summer.